by Jackie Sheehan.

A sanitation worker in Bijie, Guizhou Province, opened a dumpster last Friday morning to an appalling discovery: the bodies of five boys, all street children aged about ten years old, who had taken shelter in it from the night cold and died from carbon monoxide poisoning after burning charcoal for warmth in the confined space (BBC news link for this ).

China has about 200,000 street children, and although virtually all countries have their share, not many have policies like the PRC’s household registration (hukou) system which actually generate child homelessness. The left-behind children of migrant parents get left behind not only because the factories of southeast China don’t permit children in company housing, but above all because they would be excluded from education in cities anywhere in China because of their parents’ hukou status.

Some left-behind children are with their grandparents, though even then the arrangement puts a strain on family relationships, with children reporting struggles to communicate with their elderly carers. Moreover, when parents are gone for years at a time without a visit home, sudden bereavement can still put these children on the street. But the life stories of the former street children I’ve encountered in my research on human trafficking show all too clearly the greater risks of leaving young children in the care of more distant relatives or neighbours.

Some details of these stories seem to belong to a different age in China altogether, as in the case of the Guangxi girl left with a neighbour so early in her life that she hardly remembered her parents and had no idea where they had migrated. When she was twelve, she was bought from the neighbour by the village head to work as an unpaid servant in his household until she was old enough to marry his son, though she was sexually abused by the father long before that time came. At fourteen, she willingly left the village with a labour recruiter who promised her a good job in the city and a chance to find her parents, but who trafficked her into years of sexual exploitation in the UK instead.

Others who later became victims of trafficking were, by the age of nine or ten, living rough like the boys in Bijie, banding together with other street children for safety, and scavenging for recyclables to sell for food. Boys and girls alike had often fled physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their informal foster families.

China’s shelters for the homeless are supposed to move people on after ten days’ emergency assistance, though NGOs report that street children are often allowed to return over and over again, in recognition that they have nowhere else to go. It is hardly a substitute for a proper home, though, and conditions in state orphanages are such that children often prefer living rough. There are NGOs trying to help, such as Morning Tears, which takes in the children of imprisoned or executed parents, but not nearly enough capacity to make a real difference.

Since China’s laws require people to rely on their family for support, it is perverse to continue, through the hukou system, to force apart for years at a time the families of migrant workers, risking left-behind children’s destitution if their caring arrangements break down. As things stand, many street children in the PRC are not just falling through the net, they are being actively turned out of it by their own government.

Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors


  1. One of the great tragedies of the “success” of economic reform over the past three plus decades is that one third or more of most children have missed out. Jackie’s blog touches on the most horrendous types of outcomes: death, trafficking and enslavement. But one-third of rural girls and and urban girls – and 25% of rural boys and 22% of urban boys – are “relatively or severely underweight”, according to national surveys of school children. And that has remained unchanged for three decades. Meanwhile obesity has gone from almost non-existant to as many as quarter of urban boys 2-22 years and 8-13% for the other groups. The middle normal weight range has shrunk. But it is not just changes in the means that catch the eye. Analysis of provincial level data shows a huge increase in regional inequality in average weights (and heights). Why this is important is that it tells us a story about access to nutrition. Poor nutrition not only leads to underweight and stunting (low height for age), but also affects cognitive development. Poorly feed children are behind their peers at school and are more likely to leave early. In the long term, the poor state of China’s children means a huge insult on the development of the country’s human capital (educated and healthy adults) and that will in turn affect the ability of China to realise many of its other development goals. Lu Xun’s call “save the children” is as much relevant to today’s China as it was in the “Old China” of his day, which is not necessarily all that worse than the so-called “New China” when children perish as Jackie describes. Not that much of this concern was on show at the recent party congress.

    1. Interesting comment! I’m especially shocked by the data on malnutrition and obesity. Don’t they remind you of the data on economic growth and wealth concentration — yearly growth around 8-7%, but 41.4% of the country’s wealth in the hands of 1% of the families? Perhaps the correlation is more metaphorical than causal, but sinister nonetheless. As the CCP admits in its Central Committee some of the richest man in the country and a children-kissing Grandpa stacks billions, perhaps China’s rulers have really “normalised” into a self-serving elite, producing growth that benefits only its ranks. What an ironic way to Westernise.

      1. In fact there is a high correlation between nutritional status (height and weight data for children) and conventional economic measures of inequality, such as differences in per capita income and the gini coefficient for income distribution. Over the past three decades China has gone from one of the most equal societies (but poor and chronically hungry) where the overall gini coefficient was about 0.22 (the urban gini was 0.16 due to high wage compression in state industries) to one of the most unequal, where the gini is 0.45 to 0.50, depending on which studies one consults.

        1. The same can be said of investments, Sima Hui, where poorer GDP regions have statistically fewer stock market accounts by province (highly correlated). I am quite interested in what kinds of utilitarian policy solutions there can be to the nutritional issue though. The government in China is no alien to positive initiatives to assist the vulnerable (I am thinking blind medical and street osteopathy clinics – tuina so-called). There is a great opportunity for Chinese philanthropy here. Redistribution of wealth by teaching man to fish not giving him the fish. But it is needed yesterday, not sometime in future.

  2. It is shocking that US, European and other Asian leaders are willing to shake hands and do business with this government given the last two “society” posts on this blog. Will they come to regret this, as Bush regrets the handshake shots with Saddham and Osama Bin Laden? According to the previous post the CCP have caused the death of many more than Hitler. And in this post, the most debt free country can’t or won’t even help its defenceless children. Shame on China and its CCP. The CCP must be brought to account. Or doesn’t it matter because they are Chinese, therefore worth less as human beings?

  3. I do not agree with the last part in my eyes but I know that ironically a lot of Chinese would in terms of attitude toward the value of life. Some say that life is cheap in Asia. I think the point is that the CPC has changed substantially but not in ways that are substantial or not enough in the view of international critics and critics inside China too.

  4. Anyone interested in the situation of China’s 58 million left-behind children can find a wealth of information on the website of the “EU-China Civil Society Dialogue on Left-behind Children: Problems and Solutions”. The fourth forum of this three year dialogue programme was held at the University of Nottingham Ningbo in February 2012. Visit

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